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CrushCraft Is Not the Thai You Know but the Thai You Should

It’s called phat ke mao. Just pretend it’s pad Thai, OK?
It’s called phat ke mao. Just pretend it’s pad Thai, OK?
Catherine Downes

On a recent Friday afternoon, CrushCraft gave off the appearance of a restaurant that was firing on all cylinders. Customers from nearby office buildings had trickled down into the Quadrangle storefront, filling at least half of the tables in the dining room and the patio out front — not an overwhelming showing by any means, but respectable considering the restaurant had been open just more than a month.

At the tables, the tips of chopsticks pecked at bowls for morsels of meat and rice while their owners nodded in approval. "This is good," their faces seemed to say. "Surprisingly so," the other faces responded, as their chopsticks hunted and pecked again. CrushCraft had ushered a new style of Thai food into its Uptown neighborhood, and diners across the board looked pleased.

Well, not everyone. While I mulled over a mix of local and import beers chilled in a bucket of ice during my first visit, a man approached the counter holding a paper bowl on behalf of his wife. The dish was too spicy, he said politely, before asking if they would exchange it, which they did. Co-owner and chef Paul Singhapong, who has the Mansion on Turtle Creek and the French Room on his résumé, says the customer I witnessed was the exception — that only 1 or 2 percent of his diners say a dish is too hot, and that maybe the same number claim a dish is not fiery enough.

Singhapong wants you to know that, like most produce, the chiles he gets are often inconsistent, sometimes hot enough to blister the paint on a car and other times not hot at all. His cooks have to taste each batch as they come in to know how to proceed, he says. They're aiming at a moving target.

Singhapong also wants you to know that Thai cooking is not just about heat, as it may be portrayed in other restaurants. "It's about spice," he says, in a reference that may give you pause until you realize he uses the term to describe ginger, herbs, peppercorns and spices you might normally associate with your favorite cookie recipe.

Singhapong wants you to know all these things because he and his partner, Jack Nochkasem, are trying to differentiate CrushCraft from the quintessential American Thai restaurants that can be found around Dallas and beyond. Most serve dishes that are sweet and heavy, with thick sauces that cling to and overwhelm ingredients. They view capsaicin as a conduit for bravado, filling their dining rooms with sweating brows, running noses and the occasional gasp for air, but that's all wrong, according to the chef, who notes that Thai food doesn't have to be so hot you see colors when you eat it.

Still, piquancy is a matter of taste, which is exactly why he's set up a station toward the end of his front counter where you'll find the same condiments you see at many Thai restaurants. There's pulverized dried chiles that add a dusty, earthy heat, and a chile sauce that adds character and additional acidity. There are chiles floating in vinegar and chiles floating in fish sauce that add brightness and pungency, respectively.

There are also condiments that are less common in Thai restaurants, like a sweet and sour number in a round jar that looks a little angry when you open it. It's made with lime juice, fish sauce and sugar, with a little garlic, pepper and a lot of chiles, and the sauce might be in a slight state of fermentation as evidenced by the bubbles on the surface. "You can eat it with almost anything," Singhapong says, and he's right. It's delicious.

I first tried it with the laap isaan, which you may know better as larb gai. The mixture of ground beef gets its tangy flavor from an aggressive measure of lime juice, which jibes perfectly with the sweetness in the simultaneously sour sauce. A small amount of toasted, uncooked rice adds a nutty grit to the beef, and crushed dried red chiles slowly bring up the burn while you eat. It may be the greatest of all Thai dishes, and here it's my go-to order.

The sweet and sour sauce was just as good with the moo ping, which pairs grilled pork and a papaya salad with sticky rice. If you've ever noticed that rice is relatively easy to eat with chopsticks until the sauce from your dish washes away the stickiness of the grains, you'll love how sticky rice stands up to a thorough dousing and still sticks to bamboo. And how nice is it to see sticky rice used with something other than diced mango and coconut milk in a Thai restaurant?

CrushCraft, which partly takes its name from the flavor-freeing action of a mortar and pestle, has plenty of surprises despite its modest (disposable) tableware, lack of a waitstaff (critic, your order is ready!) and its fast-casual feel. The interior is far from an afterthought. Weathered boxes that used to hold ingredients line the walls and large sacks of rice are on display, evoking the scenery just outside a warehouse where you might find a street stall, selling pad Thai.

The menu will challenge you, too. Before you get lost in the board hanging over the kitchen, be sure to check out the sheets of butcher paper hanging haphazardly on the wall just as you come in the door. Aside from the tofu fries and spring rolls, you'll find two special dishes that are vying to become permanent fixtures on the menu board. The staff tallies each dish as its ordered, and the more popular dish lives to burn your face again.

If the pla phat pik is still on the menu when you visit and you enjoy fishy flavors, then you've found your meal. Sautéed basa (an Asian catfish) joins eggplant and a slew of chiles in a red curry with coconut milk. Dried shrimp is used prominently, as is heat, resulting in a deliciously smelly, mouth-searing experience. It's exactly what Singhapong says defines Thai cooking.

Not that you're restrained to that oceanic funk. There's pad Thai and drunken noodles, if you're looking for something more familiar. The khao soi pairs egg noodles two shades thinner than fettuccini, with a mild yellow curry and a tangle of crunchy wonton strips on top, and the suar rong hai produces approachable, if bland strips of steak on a bed of rice that you can doctor till you're satisfied.

And finally there is also kra pow, which is a popular dish, but not for beginners — at least how it's served here. A healthy dose of fish sauce adds pungency but it's the chiles, crushed in a mortar and pestle, that you may find challenging. This is the kind of dish that makes you pause and take a few sips of beer before wielding your chopsticks again. It's the kind of dish that will send you out the door with a glowing halo of heat wrapped around your head. It's the kind of dish that might have you begging your significant other to quietly make it disappear so you can soothe yourself with simple spring rolls in peace. But you're not that kind of diner. Are you?

Web head: CrushCraft Is Not the Thai You Know but the Thai You Should

Web deck: Two men brought a whole lot of chiles to Uptown, and they're burning things up.

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